The days pass with dreamlike clouds gliding over dreamlike mountains. A blazing heat bathes the plazas and zocalos, which are always full. In the evenings, the sun turns pink and deep yellow and the air cools, and there is nothing like sitting in the Plaza de Santo Domingo seeing the light reflect off the church’s facade while dozens of people of all ages walk and sit and play and wait and buy and sell and smile and sing. The colors of the traditional clothing and artesania piled on tables and stalls and in almost every shop are richer and brighter and deeper than you can imagine.
The hour feels like a spell, a spell that no one wants to be broken. This has been one of the most fascinating and unique experiences I’ve had.
Two encounters stand out—>
We walk daily to the mercado to sample the best of Oaxacan street food and look for crafts and other things to take home-sandals, bed sheets, chocolate, mole, mezcal. Yesterday I bought some copal–incense made of tree sap that has been used for ceremonial purposes in Mesoamerica since ancient times.
One section of the market is made up solely of food stalls, or fondas, selling everything recognizable in Oaxacan cuisine. In a part of this market there is a passageway made of of small, raised stands, each with its own rack of meat (the ubiquitous trio of tocino, cecina, and chorizo) and a small grill. You buy a plate filled with cebollitas and chiles at the entrance, and the sellers hand you a basket. You take your basket to a stall of your choice and they grill the vegetales and the meat you pick out.
Were eating at one of these stalls and being served by a young boy, who eagerly brought us small plates of limon and guacamole. When he heard us talking, he lit up and asked if we spoke English. “I speak English!” he said. We asked him how he learned English and he said that he used to live in Mississippi. He was 11 years old and born in the United States. He said when he was 8 his family had to move back to Oaxaca.
When we asked what he thought about moving to Mexico, he said he liked Mexico better because “they make meat better here.” He said that he stopped attending school when he came to Mexico, and seemed conflicted when we asked if he’d want to go to school. For him, this was what life had become, and what was the point of imagining anything else. He also said that he would only consider visiting the United States “once Donald Trump is out.”
We were reminded of this recent piece in the LA Times about the 9 million mixed status families who are experiencing new uncertainty since the election. This boy is a U.S. citizen, but because his family had to leave the rural south (probably meatpacking work) and return to Oaxaca, he will not likely experience any benefit from that status. As most people who follow this in the news already understand, immigration status and fear of deportation puts tremendous strain on families, who often have to make heart-wrenching decisions, or be torn apart against their will.
This is one of many injustices that have transnational, global, or historical roots and are on full display almost everywhere in Mexico. During our stay in an AirBnB in Oaxaca, we spent an entire morning with our wonderful host, Laura, talking about Ayotzinapa, the teachers’ strike in Oaxaca, and the costs of political corruption that are borne by the most vulnerable and marginalized. The overall atmosphere in the city of Oaxaca is very politicized. Graffiti on the streets scathingly lashes out against presidente EPN and other politicos. Graphic arts collectives sell prints and stencils out of storefront shops, and almost all of them bear some critique against capitalism, the ruling class, patriarchy, racism, or oppression in all its forms.
Being here and engaging in conversations about indigenous rights, national identity, free trade, race, mestizaje, and politics has sparked in me a passion that I had when I was in college, and also fueled my motivation to move forward with my creative work. It has also motivated me to move forward in my plans to find ways to apply my advocacy skills to other causes I care about outside of early education.
The second encounter: On Tuesday, we paid a colectivo bus to take us to Monte Alban, the archeological site of the ancient Zapotec capitol (whose ancient name is still unknown). I had been looking forward to this trip a great deal, but I was unprepared for the impact it would have on me. It is hard to put into words. I have been to other spectacular archeological sites, but there was something deeply spiritual about Monte Alban. The only thing I can compare it to is the feeling I get when I am immersed in the land of my own birth, New Mexico, which itself has a unique spiritual and historical energy. Monte Alban had that same feeling, but in its own unique way.
Maybe part of it was that Monte Alban features prominently in the novel I am writing. To stand on that ground and climb those monuments and behold the breathtaking expanse of the Valley of Oaxaca and its surrounding sierras was just…transformative. Late in the afternoon, dark clouds moved in all around the valley and rays of brilliant sunlight shot through in angelic columns miles down to the green and brown hills and peaks. It began to rain. I stood on top of the tallest building on the site, a restored temple overlooking the vast plaza surrounded by majestic temples and palaces, each over 1500 years old. The feeling was indescribable.
I have always thought of the world in terms of history. The experience of Monte Alban brought together so many of the things that have long been important to me. I am still processing it, but for now I am sifting through my notes on the many details I’ve picked up on this trip that will add greater depth to my story and to my own understanding of the world—- The taste of tejate; the smell of the rain in the Valle de Oaxaca, the color of natural dye made from cochinilla and huizache; the odor of sal de chapulines; the sizes and shapes of the dozens of species of agave plants; the voices and faces of the people; the tension between the past and the present, and the way the past is very much still alive.
The main character in my story’s name is Dzahui. Her name means “rain” in the Mixtec language. At a point of crisis in her life, she and the man she loves journey over the mountains and make a pilgrimage to Monte Alban. At the time Dzahui is living (around the year 1100), Monte Alban has been abandoned for almost 300 years. She goes to the ruins to seek clarity, a vision, some kind of hope for what she has foreseen will be a dark future for her people. In a few hundred years, the world as she has known it will be changed forever. In a thousand years, some of her people will still be alive, and when civilization is sick and dying from its own greed, hatred, and disregard for the earth, those who came only to take from this continent will once again come to her and her people to learn how to survive and live again in a new, better world.
But all that is far in the future. She also comes to Monte Alban for personal reasons, to seek clarity for her own life– should she let herself be loved my this man, the one she has known since she was a girl? Should she embrace him even though she knows that death will take him and she will live on, never able to find his equal through many lifetimes?
In Dzahui’s life, as is always the case, the writer’s own life is reflected. I came here to find meaning and clarity and hope–for myself, but also for what this world has become, what it is becoming, and what role I can play in that.
By this measure, I have found what I was looking for, and even more.